Tag: study

On competence

Today was a day of competence – in its pure and inconceivable form. The first 8 hours of my 5.5 hours working day I have spent with a “Senior Consultant”. To shorten the story: after four months working overtime, I have finally reverse engineered enough information to be certain that the product we bought just isn’t going to do what it is supposed to. Instead I have to put up with approx. 10 fully committed days to compensate all flaws and inabilities – only to lessen the gap between what has been promised and what will be possible. Notice that “what has been promised” should have been done in about a weeks worth of work and that this week has lasted approximately four months now. Reasoning, I guess my position is save for yet another week*phew*

On the other hand I just had a soothing conversation on the phone with the astonishingly unfit almighty administration of the university I used to go to. As always they didn’t fail to surprise me once again in matters of stupidity, regression, unfriendliness and a relentless misperception/misapprehension of their own job.
Probably I shouldn’t go into detail too much, but let’s assume a situation where you wanted to send an application for something that is perfectly reasonable, what would you do? Also consider the fact that you already consulted the dean of your faculty and that he confirmed your thesis about the application being not only reasonable, but perfectly valid. What I did was to go the the universitiys’ website, get the form, filled it out and send it to the fax number I found on the application which should have been the last pro-active part of mine in this matter. Six weeks later, I’m still not done. What went wrong? It’s easy to figure.

You probably knew it all the way when I mentioned the fax machine. I have used moderately modern and therefore too complex inadequate technology during the first contact; I even went so far as to use an e-mail address I found under “contact -> administration for students -> computer science department” to send an inquiry on whether my former request has been received. Today, when I called and asked for a confirmation of receiving my application, this most certainly hilariously ugly woman spontaneously burst into shouting. I immediately felt as if I had shot her baby. Turns out I was head-wrong. In the next 15 minutes I came to realize that she doesn’t hate me for personal reasons, but she still behaved as if I were claiming she never has paid taxes and I came to get them from her all at once. Certainly understandable – I wanted to know whether my application has been received and probably is being processed already; that could certainly be considered a matter of existence for her.

In the meantime, she taught me a great many wise things. For example I would be half a year behind. Behind what she didn’t tell. Plus I couldn’t do any exams. Which exams exactly, I also don’t know. When I asked her, the shouting resolved in angry yelling – stressing her vocal cords to a level close before the point where I might have considered it unfriendly. She repeated the upcoming facts that I would be behind and that I couldn’t do exams, because there would be no sixth semester. Never again, I thought? Great! I heard that one stinks, anyways. Then I made my first mistake – I tried to outsmart her. That’s something people usually don’t like very much. I told her I could take courses from the seventh semester. Oh, baby. She didn’t like that too much. After a long and shiny tirade I thought to myself “So what? Couldn’t hurt to tell her a little about her job, could it?”. I told her that it is possible, that I have colleagues doing something similar, that the examination regulations allowed me to do courses whenever I see fit and that I planned everything in full agreement of the dean of computer science. What I should have known is that everyone’s colleague is only telling him lies, that taking courses was not as simple as I think it is(yeah, probably she didn’t bother graduating from knitting school, because taking courses has been just too much a grind..) and finally that the dean simply had no say in these things at all.

Her fury began to annoy me a little by now, but when I tried to tell her that I only wanted to know about the status of my application she told me to shut up and wait. What followed should be considered the greatest accomplishments of mankind – complete and utter disregard for humbleness. She asked her colleague(remember; those are the guys always lying to you – so better don’t ask them too important stuff) whether it is possible to officially be in one semester, but take courses of another. Surely she was determined to start whatever she tried to do to me all over again after hearing reassuring words. Well, she didn’t. The nice, and officially most intelligent person in the bureau, told her that I’m in the main course and that I could do whatever and whenever I wanted to. Hearing this, I expected anything from a sign of insight to an apology of some sort. What I didn’t take into account was that her life already was very confusing and not that pleasing. So she went on hating the phone, me and herself. However, I had enough of this senseless waste of time. I gave her my best wishes and hung up.

What I still don’t know after having to put up with this miserable performance of a bureaucrat is whether my application will ever be processed at all. Today I even received a mail from a professor. He told me that “he heard” I would be taking his classes – he already designated me into a group and told me that next Monday would be a mandatory kick-off meeting. Well, I guess, I won’t pay the semesters’ fee and then I will be banned anyway. That’s what I wanted from the beginning, I think.. And if one thing is for sure: I won’t be in Stuttgart next Monday; for whatever reasons. Apart from the mail from the professor, I am very glad that I had this experience on the phone. It proved once more that just about any random person living in Stuttgart is miserable, unfriendly, conservative, boring and dumb – a combination of attributes I simply don’t want to face in aggregated form. How I miss Stuttgart! not.

Coming home, I realized that my fellow housemates were meeting with the landlord. The last months we were living like insects in a more cold than warm and more stone-age-ish than electriced cave(well.. it has walls and a ceiling of stone, at least). We were told that the house would be torn apart after we leave; granting us the choice whether or not to clean, to fix stuff and to let all the garbage obsolete furniture just inside. Today everything changed. The formerly liberal and avuncular landlord turned into Satan himself; demanding unscrupulous things like painting the tainted walls. Of course they were as stained when everyone moved in as they are now, but I guess that’s no argument to make. There’s more, of course, but it’s probably best not to think of it right now. Having rent apartments for the last years, I know a little about rights and responsibilities in this area – and I just spent my evening funnelling those insights into my fellow housemates.

All in all, I’m pretty impressed. I didn’t even bother to mention that I have been at home tonight for just about six hours before moving back to work; even though I have been there for 14 hours straight yesterday. Well, I even had darn good reason for that. I found code that locked itself out in not less than four places – giving my middleware a little bit of trouble. I also won’t go into detail that I found out about databases that have configuration tables for transcription tables which lead to statistics tables – only to never be read, but to be redundant to other configuration tables for another transcription table leading to its own statistics table. Since none of the tables have any keys or indices and there are lots of statistics to be saved, one of the tables has outgrown the state where queries going in will bring back a result different from a timeout. The most obvious part here is that both tables are never being read in a meaningful way. There is only one daemon process(the same that’s been filling these tables all along), reading one column of only one of the tables, sorts it and writes the top result in a third table. There the data will finally be read from a program and translated by a third transcription table. Apparently it proved impossible to fill these 4 bytes of information in the third table skipping the overhead before. And good for me I had to reverse-engineer all that great business logic; it’s not as if my todo-list is giving me any trouble recently; there’s still some space on the monitor that I can read in between the piles of notes.

I could go on, but then it might seem to you, my dear and noble reader, that I am a bitter old man having a hard time keeping my heart from exploding due to too much pressure. But the truth couldn’t be farther apart. In fact, I don’t think of myself as a truly smart man – I mean, I have my good parts that I have worked pretty hard for – and I am proud of them. But I’m no genius and as it seems never will be. On the other hand, being confronted with those massive amounts of stupidity in the world, I feel pretty neat about myself. I am deeply grateful for what I have not become.  Others missed out on that opportunity and are now stuck in a demeaning life of sluggishness. I look forward to the great journeys of tomorrow, they undoubtedly will be fun.

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Still seeking

Probably one of the things on my list on what I really dislike is working.. inefficiently. All my life I have been striving to improve myself, my skills, social relations, work(-load^^), [..] – and while I certainly cannot say that I reached perfection, the path taught me one thing or another.

On the other hand I am struggling with how processes sometimes dictate me to function. We are all surrounded by grossly static and therefore always imperfect well designed systems that need us to include ourselves in a more or less clearly defined way. It doesn’t matter if it’s the educational system that needs us to do just one paper after another, to finally have accumulated enough redundant and in itself senseless paperwork to be able to perform just a sequel of the aforementioned menial task or if it is our employer who urges us to use Microsoft Windows, because that’s the operating system imperatively declared as “business-proof” – when it comes to conforming to these given rule sets, I am at constant struggle with myself on why I am investing time in actions disclosed as being utterly inferior to alternatively available methods. There used to be a strikingly insistent explanation for everything – studying is important, because it proves to everyone else that you’re capable of doing your desired job while working with Microsoft Windows is important, because the guy ultimately paying your bills told you to. So far, this argument sounds simple enough, but I am afraid it can be dismantled just as easily.

For instance, there weren’t many exams that I didn’t succeed in without not having to put up any measurable effort beyond letting my tired eyes hover over some boring notes for two hours or so(annotation: I actually succeeded in using double double-negation in only the first half of this premise which already means more to me than all the papers I had to pile up during the last years) which ought to disprove (at least to myself) the declaration of improving me in matters of computer science any reasonable extent in relation to the vast amount of time spent simply holding the title “student” that used to imply a lot of restrictions like not being able to earn any appreciable amount of money. One might argue that I could study a lot quicker and therefore finish earlier if I frivolously declare my studies to be too easy for me which might be true, but I simply cannot overcome those fundamental motivational issues I have with studying itself – ever since I have learned that it doesn’t prove anything for myself, each hour invested into it just plainly feels like lost time I can never take back. This is why I chose the way of least friction – to be a student, but only to an endurable extent.

On the other side, I can’t stand working in topologies consisting of Microsoft powered machines – in fact I can’t even think of any way on working less efficient. There’s either a missing a license for VPN or there’s no license left for accessing the terminal server or the server won’t respond, because the operating system just went for a memory leak; there is always an obscure explanation why the programmer has to earn his money rather waiting than actually doing something useful. Then there’s always the thought that close to any requirement could be fulfilled amazingly easier in a Unix based environment; to only quote one example of today: A co-worker/project-manager had a serious and business threatening problem. There’s a bank which deploys some kind of ASCII-list on the web and this list is somehow important to one of our customers. Therefore there was a role created for some encouragingly qualified person minion(who is probably living in a very dark cellar) to download this file each week, time and time again, and to store it in a certain folder. The obvious problem is that intelligence obliges us to not to repeat simple and redundant tasks over and over again, but to seek out for new opportunities(or at least letting our mind wander) – and so did the person having the role of being a downloading machine. Of course the project manager is qualified and therefore would have liked someone to write a daemon process which would have loved to do the job on a regular basis(even if only lacking a infinitesimal amount of consciousness in comparison to the human downloading machine), but since application programmers are a rare resource these days, there was no-one available to write it. Evidently this task could have been performed in just about any other operating system with pre-installed tools; with any kind of Unix it would have been a matter of seconds to create a cron-job doing a wget. Of course Microsoft Windows can never be underestimated and since I’m trying to look a likable fellow human being, I hacked together some lines of Python code which then had to be re-assembled with a wrapper program to look like a stand-alone executable, because scripts are not allowed on some so called servers, because they impose a security threat – or more often are considered as being not performing enough(yeah, like Python would ever decline on a dare on who downloads the ASCII-file faster considering the opponent to be some random guy whose sole peripherals are a mouse and IE6). Even so – using Python for this trivial task took me more minutes than it would have taken me to implement a cron-job calling wget – saying that, other programmers even might have implemented a real Windows service using C++ or something equally gross. I mean – the customer did pay a guy to do the downloading so far.

This is where I finally reach my conclusion; if there are customers willing to pay for slowly built, hardly maintainable, badly scaling software whilst there are so much more efficient ways of doing the same job without the customer ever knowing about the reduced development costs, wouldn’t the intelligent course of action be to do just that instead of growing older from waiting, because the man in charge told you to?

Annotation: At least I have seen something incredibly efficient today. As I have been driving with the tram to work as every day, it was this morning that I witnessed the first control for tickets – leaving an impression on me. About 20 seconds before arriving at a seemingly random station there was an announcement to ready our tickets. While holding at the next station 10 men in uniforms entered the tram bringing up memories of a SWAT team storming a building that is to be re-pacified. Only another 20 seconds later they were already done and left the tram as quickly as they entered.
Two things I find peculiarly interesting:
1. Efficiency and speed were close to a theoretical optimum.
2. Absolutely no one tried to dodge the fare. I repeat: No one in the whole tram.

I have never seen the like before in my life. This finally has proven a statistic to me that I have recently dug from the depths of modern information distribution systems where a German consulting group sought to identify which city of the world held the most quality of life[1].
The pleasure was mine while reading that the 39 criteria that were used in the fields of politics, culture, life standard, income, health, etc, lead the consultants to crown Zurich(CH) as just this city. I would like to further mention that the #2 city of the world is Geneva(CH). Additionally counting #9 (Bern), this clearly shows the dominating factor of Switzerland.
Even though I really am in love with Zurich(or probably because of my definite affection), it’s a little strange to know that there is no better place to live in the whole world. Well, I better not screw up around here(;

[1] http://www.mercer.com/referencecontent.htm?idContent=1128060

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